On the threshing-floor, in the center of the crying, singing saints, John lay astonished beneath the power of the Lord.
-- From Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
I AM NOT AN EXPERT ON RELIGION, far from it. But somewhere along the way, I learned that in ancient Jewish legend there is told the story of the lamedvovniks, the 36 Righteous Men who were sent by God to live and work among us, always poor, unnoticed and without glory, unaware of their own perfection. If a Righteous Man were ever discovered, various versions of the legend went, he would deny his identity, disappear and reappear, unknown and unknowing, in a distant place. I do not believe in lamedvovniks. I do not even believe in God. But over the years, I've sometimes puzzled at the idea of these Righteous Men living secretly among us, been reminded that what it means to be truly good was as mysterious to those who lived a thousand years ago as it is to us, with all our modern sophistication.
Lately, after meeting Bryan Stevenson, I've found myself puzzling over these questions once again. But then, that often happens to people after they meet Bryan Stevenson.
This morning, Bryan -- 31, a lawyer and a black man -- is on the road out of Montgomery, Ala., where he lives, headed for Phenix City, a tiny Alabama town where Bryan's black client George Daniel has been locked in the Russell County jail awaiting his execution for murdering a white policeman. Just yesterday, a federal court overturned his conviction and ordered that he be given a new trial.
That is what Bryan Stevenson does. He files appeals. He is one of those much-maligned lawyers who sup- posedly clog the courts with frivolous petitions meant only to postpone deserving men's dates with the electric chair, gas chamber or needle. He is one of the reasons Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and countless politicians, including President Bush, have called for limits on the number of court reviews for those sentenced to death. He is one of the reasons that, with nearly 2,400 people on death row, only 143 have been executed since the Supreme Court declared the death penalty constitutional in 1976. Today, about 75 percent of Americans favor capital punishment, compared with 42 percent in 1966. For the first time, even a majority of blacks favor capital punishment. So far, this new public thirst for final vengeance has gone largely unquenched.
Bryan Stevenson is one of the reasons.
At the Russell County jail, Bryan is ushered into a small room where George Daniel is waiting. As Bryan tells him that he'll have a new trial -- which might literally save George's life -- the thin, 34-year-old man smiles blankly, squeezes his nose tightly, rocks his body gently and bounces his legs to some rapid, internal rhythm. He wears a white jail uniform that is filthy at the crotch. The last time Bryan visited George, his cell was dirty with his own urine. Court records show that at least once during his incarceration George Daniel ate his own feces and that he is mildly retarded. "I need cigarettes," he says finally. Bryan promises to get cigarettes, and George is led away. As Bryan leaves, a guard stops him at the jail-house gate and says of George Daniel, "I think he's crazy. I really do. That's just my opinion. We have to make him take a shower and change clothes. I think he's crazy. Some people are playin'. I don't think he is."
Outside, past the electric door and the tall wire fence, Bryan says, "George is one of the men America believes is so evil he must be strapped into an electric chair and killed." He doesn't say this harshly or self-righteously. He says it gently, with eerie understatement. "You know, people always ask me how I can defend these 'animals.' I never understand how they can ask that. The criminal justice system is so corrupt, so racist. I wouldn't want George Daniel out fending for himself. He can't. He's ill. But a civilized society does not execute people like him. Rehnquist can restrict legal options for the convicted, because he can't imagine himself or anyone he loves ever being in George Daniel's situation. But how would Rehnquist feel if his son were in George's place?
"In the end, we are too frail to make these decisions." I MET BRYAN STEVENSON BY CHANCE WHILE TRAVELING through the South, which boasts more than half of America's death-row inmates and about 85 percent of its executions since 1977. Right off, Bryan fascinated me. A graduate of Harvard's law school and John F. Kennedy School of Government, he's the director of the Alabama Capital Representation Resource Center, which is involved in some way with most of the 119 death-row inmates in Alabama. He was offered $50,000 to $60,000 a year to take the director's job, one of the center's board members told me, but Bryan said it was too much money. He settled on $18,000 --
now up to $24,000. In corporate law, he could make five to 10 times that.
Bryan worked seven days a week, still does, often from 8:30 in the morning to 11:30 at night. On Saturdays and Sundays, he knocks off early to do his laundry and maybe catch a movie. These days, he has little time to play his electric piano, compose music, play basketball or attend church, all of which he once did regularly. He hasn't had a vacation in years. Once a voracious reader, Bryan has read three books for pleasure in the last year. He sometimes worries that he doesn't laugh enough anymore.
Simply put, the man was hard to figure. A person didn't need to believe Bryan's cause was noble, or even correct, to be touched and fascinated by his passion. All through the '80s, while most of his Harvard classmates got rich, he defended penniless murderers. His parents -- working people from Milton, Del., near Rehoboth Beach -- certainly didn't understand what their son was doing. "Take the money," Bryan's father said, more than once. With all his degrees, Bryan still drove a beat-up Honda Civic. His mother drove a jet-black BMW 325i. She couldn't figure her son either. What had made him so different -- from his folks, his classmates, from America, really?
"I've asked him how he does this day in, day out," said William Newman, a Massachusetts lawyer in Alabama to work with Bryan on a death-row appeal. "It's Bryan. It's who Bryan is. I'm telling you, Bryan is a prince. I bet you won't find one person who doesn't say that. I'm telling you, he's a saint. You can't say that, I know, but he is. That's exactly what he is." Another Massachusetts lawyer, Stewart Eisenberg, also in Alabama working on an appeal, said, "I am extraordinarily impressed with Bryan, but I'm curious about why a black Harvard Law School graduate who could write his own ticket spends his time earning next to nothing in Klan country on the back roads of the South."
His curiosity was my curiosity. Bryan Stevenson had rejected America's reigning view of success and money, even justice. Perhaps understanding him -- America's reverse image -- would tell us something about ourselves. So, not yet having the legend of the lamedvovniks in mind, I set about trying to discover what had made Bryan Stevenson so unlike the rest of us. THE ROAD IS HOME TO BRYAN. HE SPENDS MORE TIME driving than he does in his apartment, which is furnished with a single folding director's chair, a stool, two end tables, two small ceramic lamps, a television and a mattress and box-spring on the floor. At the office, the phone rings incessantly. Bryan advises about 60 private lawyers who work on Alabama death-row cases pro bono. He handles an additional 24 death-row cases himself. He supervises a staff of five young lawyers who deal with about 30 cases. At the same time, he must raise about $200,000 a year in private or foundation grants to go with the $300,000 the federal government gives to the center. So it is only in his car, now a gray Toyota Corolla, on the back roads of the South, that Bryan has time to himself. He thinks, meditates, sometimes prays.
He is a thin, athletic man, just shy of six feet, a soccer star in high school and college. He wears short, natural hair and a short beard. He wears unstylish clothes and clunky sunglasses. He talks so softly that I must sometimes strain to hear him. He has no discernible accent, strictly Middle American. In phone conversations, prosecutors and defense attorneys who don't know him usually assume he's white. Once, when Bryan suggested that a defense lawyer try to plead his client down from a death sentence charge to life without parole, the lawyer said, "Didn't I tell you? He's a nigger. Can't get a life plea for a nigger in this county."
"I have always felt," Bryan says, as he drives toward Atlanta to visit another death-row client, "that I could just as easily have ended up as one of the men I am defending. I've had friends, cousins who fell into trouble. It could have been me." Bryan says this quietly and deliberately, with little emotion. When he talks about the death penalty, he talks mostly facts and fairness. He talks like a lawyer. Unless asked again and again, he rarely speaks about himself, not even in the little asides through which most people reveal so much. When I later read his words, I will see that he was, more or less, on a soapbox, plunging point by point through his list of horrors about the death penalty. But as I sit next to him, listening, a gentle intimacy in his manner masks his single-minded agenda.
"I could go through the South's prisons and put together five death rows of men not condemned whose crimes were far more vicious," Bryan says. "The people who end up on death row are always poor, often black. And almost always they had bad lawyers -- real estate lawyers who never handled a capital case and who had to be dragged screaming into the courtroom. In one case, the judge actually sent the defense lawyer out to sleep off a drunk.
"Appointed lawyers, paid a maximum of $1,000 in Alabama and several other Southern states, often do almost no work on their cases. It takes 800 hours to do a capital case. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, but prosecutors in the South still keep blacks off capital juries by giving bogus reasons to strike them. In one rural Alabama county we found potential jurors labeled by the prosecutor as 'strong,' 'medium,' 'weak' and 'black.'
"Maybe it would help the congressmen who are so hot for the death penalty if they thought of it this way: Imagine a senator is accused of stealing campaign funds and he is told that he gets a lawyer who's a drunk, who's being paid $1,000. Then the senator is told, if he's a Democrat, that only Republicans will sit on his jury -- just as blacks are still tried by all-white juries. That's our system of justice today.
"Why do I do what I do? How can anyone do anything else?" BRYAN STEVENSON WAS ALWAYS DIFFERENT. IN RURAL southern Delaware, he was the only black child in his first-grade class in 1965. His mother, who migrated from Philadelphia through marriage to Bryan's father, had volunteered to put Bryan and his older brother in the white school even before formal integration was in place. She had only to look at the ramshackle schoolhouse black children attended to know where her kids were going. Years later, when Bryan was put in a slow-learner class with the black children who had arrived with integration, it was Bryan's mother who went to the school and raised hell until he was bumped to the top class.
Alice Stevenson was a firebrand by the yardstick of southern Delaware. "Don't be a fool, don't be silly and grin," she'd tell her two sons and daughter. "You are here to make a mark. Otherwise you will be the mark." Appalled at the docility she perceived in southern Delaware's blacks, she admonished her children never to show false deference to whites. She insisted on perfect grammar, diction and pronunciation. And there was one absolute rule: "I never want to hear that you can't do something because you're black. You can do anything you want."
Bryan's father, Howard, a native of southern Delaware, gave less assertive advice. The child of a prominent black mechanic in nearby Georgetown, he had grown up playing with the children of the town's prominent whites. He recalls few incidents in which he was mistreated by whites. In fact, because he dressed nattily -- refusing to wear the jeans and overalls then worn by most of the blacks he knew -- it was more often blacks who insulted him with the charge that he was highfalutin. Howard's advice to his children -- born of his own unusual experience -- was that most white people will treat you well if you treat them well.
Between the two of them, Howard and Alice Stevenson sent a singular message: Whites were not to be feared.
Both had good jobs. She was an accounting clerk at the Air Force base in Dover, and he was a lab technician at the General Foods plant. They bought three acres on County Route 319 and built a little ranch house that was elegant by local black standards of the day. Up the road, their neighbors lived with dirt floors and no running water. In a sense, the Stevensons were local black gentry.
Alice worried about her children being in school all day with whites, worried they'd be picked on, worried they'd forget they were black. In high school, where Bryan was popular, she worried about the white girls who kept calling the house. "Please don't marry a white girl just to do it," Bryan's mother pleaded. Today, she says, "I didn't order him, but I did beg." On the other hand, Alice worried too about her children hanging around with too many black kids who said "mens" for "men" or who said "I be fixin' to go home now."
But most importantly, she worried about a more profound influence. Howard was a deeply religious man with a Pentecostal bent to his faith. Alice had realized this near the time of their wedding while they were attending a service at her white-gloved black Baptist church in Philadelphia. Out of the blue, Howard was struck by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the words of the Pentecostals, he "got happy" -- and he stood and danced wildly in unconscious, joyful exultation. The ushers came to restrain him. The fiercely proud, urbane and proper Alice was mortified. And back in Delaware at Howard's Prospect AME Church, it was more of the same. To Alice, the congregation's emotionalism was ignorant and hickish. It did not fit with her plans for her children.
The Stevenson kids all did well, went to college and graduate school. But Bryan was always the family's darling. Howard Jr., the oldest, came to resent his father's strict discipline. Christy, the youngest, used to sneak off to listen to rock music. But Bryan -- as far as anyone knows -- did none of these things. Not to say he was perfect: He picked on his sister sometimes, fought with his brother, bent a few of his father's strict rules. But all in all he was about as good as kids come. A self-taught musician, he played organ and piano at the Prospect AME Church and learned to shift his tempo to the spontaneous outbursts of congregants as they, like his father, "got happy." He showed no interest in being a minister, but he could preach up a storm.
In his overwhelmingly white high school, Bryan was president of the student council. He was a star athlete. He was a straight-A student who would eventually graduate No. 1 in his class. He would be pursued by Ivy League schools but take a soccer scholarship to Eastern College, a small Baptist school in Pennsylvania, where he would lead the gospel choir and a Christian fellowship. In high school, he was a champion public speaker, and he played the lead in "A Raisin in the Sun." After 30 years of teaching drama, Harriett Jeglum still remembers it as the play of which she is the proudest. At Cape Henlopen High, Bryan held an odd status. He was one of only a handful of blacks in the advanced classes, and it was common for black kids in that situation to be teased, even harassed by other black kids -- accused of "trying to be white." Bryan's sister, Christy, got some of that grief, but she and her brother and other old acquaintances of Bryan's say he never did.
"He was just so kind and decent," says Kevin Hopkins, a childhood neighbor of Bryan's. "Nobody would ever have thought of saying anything like that about Bryan, black or white."
Bryan's mother tells this story: When the kids were young, she always told them they could make requests for their favorite meals and she'd do what she could to fix them. Christy and Howard made requests, but Bryan never did. "He just ate whatever I cooked and said it was the best food he'd ever eaten," she says, still sounding a bit puzzled. "That's just the way he was about everything. If I was in a bad mood, he was always the first to notice it. He'd say, 'You all right, Mom?' " BACK ON THE ROAD TO GEORGIA'S DEATH ROW: "I HAD THE happiest childhood," says Bryan, finally loosened up and talking about himself for a change. "I was at church two, three nights a week, all day on Sundays," he says. "At school, I knew everybody -- the white kids from class, the black kids from sports. But we lived in the country, and I didn't hang with any clique. My parents cared about me and I wanted to do things to make them care about me more. Years later, at Harvard, so many kids I met felt that if they hadn't gone to Andover and Harvard, their lives would be over." He smiles. "But I always figured that people with even zillions of dollars couldn't be happier than me.
"I had fights with the white kids on the bus. They'd call me 'nigger.' In first grade, I remember holding my hand up and never being called on. In second grade, a teacher's aide made me get off the monkey bars while the white kids were on it. When they did integrate the schools, all the black kids were in 3-C. I was the only black kid in section A until junior high. Year after year, the counselors tried to get me to take vo-tech: 'Everybody needs to know how to make bricks,' they said." Finally, as Bryan talks, it becomes clear that the racism he has experienced, mild by the standards of the generation before him, is still tightly woven into his work against the death penalty.
"The reason I always say I've never met a client whose life isn't worth saving," he says, "is because they are like me -- except they didn't get in 3-A. They were in 3-C. A few breaks the other way, and I could be on the other side of the table. You know, as a kid, I spent my summers at my aunt's in Philly. You couldn't get police to come to her neighborhood. You had to call and say a police officer had been shot. My grandfather was murdered, stabbed dozens of times, in his own home. The killers pleaded to a low charge. I had a black friend raped on campus, but the case was never pursued. She was leaving town, had no family there to pressure the prosecutor. That's our justice: We over-prosecute crimes against whites and under-prosecute crimes against blacks, because whites have political power and blacks don't. I saw it in my own life long before I studied the death penalty.
"But when I did, and discovered that a man who murders a white has a 4.3 times greater chance of getting the death penalty in Georgia, I saw it as a symbol of all the race and poverty bias in our society. We're not yet capable of valuing the life of a black mother of four in the projects the same way we value the life of, say, the ex-president of Chevron. We're just not capable.
"Do you know that in Montgomery, Alabama, there's a paper called the Bulletin Board that still runs ads seeking white renters? I spent weeks looking for an apartment. On the phone, a man said, 'You don't sound black, but I ask everyone.' I lost all humility. I told one woman I was a lawyer with a Harvard degree. She said the apartment was $250. I put on a suit, but when she saw me her whole body sagged. She said the rent was $450. It's very demoralizing and debilitating. None of my Harvard degrees, my suits, meant anything next to my little black face.
"All these things are of the same cloth."
At the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center, which houses that state's death row, Bryan's client, Roger Collins, is waiting in the visitors' room, a deep narrow place with a wall of screened bars and a long row of empty stools. After four years of handling his case, Bryan has come to think of Roger as a friend. Roger stands to greet him, takes away his sunglasses and puts them on, hams it up. He is a black man and Bryan's age exactly, 31, handsome, with short hair and a close-cut beard. He is on death row for brutally murdering a black woman 13 years ago. Roger was 18. His accomplice was 25. They had separate trials. Roger got death. His accomplice got life. Roger could get an execution date any day.
Bryan tells him about his appeal and about how Congress might pass a law that would help his case. (As it turned out, Congress did not.) "I understood right from wrong," Roger says. "I did, yeah. It just started out one thing and ended up another. I've done some hellful things in my past." When he was 13, Roger says, he and his father and brother would go to Florida from Georgia and rob places every weekend. In ninth grade, he still couldn't read. He thinks, but isn't sure, that his mother and brother are in prison. His father, who eventually went to prison for murder, is out now, and he visited a few weeks ago. "He said they went for the death sentence," Roger says, "and missed."
"It looks real good," Bryan says. "Don't get down."
Roger says, almost to himself, "Ain't set no date."
Outside, on the road again, Bryan says, "I meet people like Roger every day. Their lives are a mess. Half of my clients have had somebody in their families murdered. They are always getting their electric turned off, or their telephone. Or they mention that their daughter has been in jail for six months, and, by the way, what should they do about it? They live at the margins of society, with no sense of control over their lives. We've given up trying to help them. To mention it is to be ridiculed as naive and weak. You know, as a boy George Daniel was hung in a sheet from a tree when he wet the bed, and beaten with a bat." Bryan is quiet for a long time.
Then he says, "I'm afraid they're going to kill Roger." SOMETHING HAPPENS TO IDEALISTIC young people at Harvard Law School. On the first day, Bryan recalls, his entering class was asked how many planned to practice public interest law after graduation, and probably 70 percent of the hands went up. But very few entered the field. Last year, only about 3 percent of Harvard Law's graduates went directly into legal or public service organizations. In Bryan's class, the overwhelming majority of graduates took prestigious clerkships or cut to the chase and took $70,000-plus jobs with big law firms. "Everybody came into law school wanting to help the poor," Bryan says. "But when the big law firms offered $1,500 a week, they all went."
It was a seduction. On that first day, students were told to look around at their 500 classmates. "They tell you that you're sitting with future congressmen, leading partners of important law firms. You are pushed to compete, get to 'the top.' Only nobody ever stops to define 'the top.' There's no value orientation about finding meaning in what you do." Students are encouraged to feel special, he says, as if they are better than everyone else and therefore deserving of wealth, power and privilege. It can be a very appealing pitch, especially to youngsters from the bottom, who yearn to be accepted by the elite and who are willing to pay the price of distancing themselves from their roots. Bryan didn't bite. It sounds hokey, but Bryan seems instead to have cut a swath of goodness through his years at Harvard. In the remarks of his former classmates, there is an unmistakable tone of testimony.
"He is just this incredibly exceptional person," says Jeffrey Nussbaum, a lawyer in San Francisco and a former Harvard Law classmate. "Bryan radiated a sense of goodness and kindness, which sounds so mushy. But he definitely radiated it. He has some kind of inner peace." Nussbaum says Bryan was once harassed by a gang of whites in Cambridge. "He wasn't angry. That was the thing. How can I put it? He felt sorry for the people who had attacked him."
Another Harvard classmate, Jerry Salama, now an assistant to one of New York's deputy mayors, even remembers Bryan once talking about his opposition to the death penalty. "What about the guy who cuts people in 50 pieces?" Salama asked pointedly. First, Bryan mentioned that his grandfather had been savagely murdered. Then he said something Salama has continued on page 27 never forgotten: "It's not right to kill them back." Says Salama, "He just couldn't fathom the idea of wanting to 'kill them back.' "
Again and again, old Harvard classmates mention that Bryan, who clearly didn't share the law school's dominant values, never criticized anyone for wanting to get rich and powerful by serving the already rich and powerful. "A lot of us were talkin', talkin' all the time about helping the poor, but very few of us did anything about it," says Kimberle Crenshaw, a former Harvard Law classmate and now a UCLA law professor. "Bryan never talked about it. He just did it. He didn't do it to win other people's approval. He did it for himself. He was one of the few people not tainted by Harvard. He's got something else that gives him energy. I don't know what it is. I don't know anybody like him. I think Bryan is religious. I don't know how religious."
Bryan's old classmates mention repeatedly that they "think" Bryan is religious, but they say he never talked about that either. They knew he went to church, but nobody knew where. In fact, Bryan went to church in a poor black Cambridge neighborhood, where as a volunteer he helped people fight their way through the city's housing and welfare bureaucracies and gave kids free piano lessons.
"Bryan is the kind of person who, even though I don't see much anymore, I will always consider a close friend," says Frederick Smith, a lawyer in New Jersey and a former Harvard Law classmate. "The word for Bryan is seminal. It's hard to be close to him and not be profoundly influenced and deeply changed. I very quickly fell under his wing. Bryan was from a little country town, and I had gone to prep school, Harvard College and spent two years at Oxford, but I had to run to keep up with Bryan, literally." He laughs. "It sounds like I'm talking about someone who is older, but I'm five years older than he is.
"I always assumed that what happened to me would happen to Bryan. 'Well, now's the time to grow up. We have bills to pay.' Everybody else in the class, like lemmings, hopped off the cliff and went to large law firms. But not Bryan. I have another friend from Harvard, and he and I still talk about the phenomenon of Bryan Stevenson. What makes him what he is? We talk about how much we hate what we're doing. Why did we fall so short and Bryan is out there as a beacon? I hate to admit to character flaws, but maybe Bryan is the clearest example of what true character is all about." BRYAN STEVENSON DOESN'T LIKE TO hear this kind of talk about himself. It is, he believes, another kind of trap, not unlike the one Harvard lays for its "special" young students. "I know they are trying to be nice," he says, as he drives off to yet another rural Alabama town, this time Monroeville, to talk to the family of his death-row client Walter McMillian. "I hear it when I go to a reunion or I run into an old classmate who's doing something he hates. These people act like I'm a priest, making such sacrifices. I'm not. It's easy for me to do what I do. What people don't understand when they say I could be making all this money is that I couldn't be making all this money. I could not do it. I could not get up in the morning and go to work. If the death penalty were abolished tomorrow, I wouldn't be a corporate lawyer. I'd probably be a musician. When people say I'm great, what I'm doing is great, they aren't talking about me. They're talking about themselves, about what's missing in their lives."
Bryan has struggled with the idea that he is special, denied it, all his life. "Whites have always treated Bryan like he walked on water," says his brother, Howard Jr., a psychologist and visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "But the label of specialness is impossible to swallow, because to be black and special to whites means you aren't really black, which puts a distance between you and your people, who are to whites very unspecial. To ac- cept the label of special is to absolve people of their responsibility to be good. It's a different kind of control. It's the desire to take what you have and make it their own."
As Bryan cruises toward Monroeville, past cotton and cane and giant pecan trees, past Alabama's Holman Prison and its death row, I recall for the first time the legend of the lamedvovniks, the Righteous Men, who forever deny their own virtue. Bryan would understand why ancient legend required good men to deny their goodness: To believe you are good, special, better than the rest, is to be neither good nor special.
Finally, I ask, "How important is your faith?"
"It's very important," Bryan says. He explains that in the 1970s he was involved in the charismatic Christian movement. It was a modern version of the backwoods Pentecostalism -- with its emotional and sublime encounters with the Holy Spirit -- that Bryan's father had practiced all his life. In the 1960s, the faith burst forth and profoundly changed America's stodgy and ritualized mainline denominations. Yet, traditionally, Pentecostalism was a faith of the dispossessed -- the poor and the uprooted, from white Appalachia to black Los Angeles. And Bryan knows this.
"Church is not so important to me today," he says, "but I still glory in the charisma and spontaneity of the black church, still love to play the piano for a person who stands and dances to the Spirit. It is restorative. A grandmother who stands up and says, 'I've lost my son and daughter in the fire, all my belongings, but I'm here with my grandson and we're gonna make it' -- it is more restorative than praying with people who are thankful for their wealth. I must return to that well. If there's an afterlife, that's who it's for -- those whose lives have been hellish and who've struggled to be better. That's who Christianity is for -- the rejected, despised and broken. And those are my clients."
It's dark when Bryan arrives in Monroeville and meets Walter McMillian's sister, niece and nephew in the cold wind outside the IGA food market at Ollie's Corner. He tells them an appeals court has ordered the local court to consider whether the county prosecutor had secret deals with the two main witnesses against McMillian, a 49-year-old black man who was convicted of killing an 18-year-old white woman in cold blood during a robbery. One witness against McMillian was his alleged accomplice, who pleaded guilty to the murder and got a life sentence. In many of Bryan's cases, it's clear that his clients actually did murder someone. But the evidence against McMillian is strictly circumstantial. If Bryan can prove the secret deals, Walter McMillian gets a new trial.
"Is everything else going all right?" Bryan asks.
"Did my daughter call you?" McMillian's sister asks.
"From Mobile, yes. I haven't had a chance to call back."
"They got her son for capital murder."
"Is that right?" Bryan says, masking his shock with studied calmness. "Have her call me. Make sure she tells him not to say anything to the police. Does he have an attorney?"
"Make sure she calls tonight."
Back on the road, Bryan says, "It's probably too late."
As always, Bryan worries first about the man accused, but right now I can't help thinking about the victim, for whom it is already too late. And I ask the question that is unavoidable, the one so many people believe challenges Bryan's entire work: "But what about the victims, the people your men kill? What about their husbands and wives, their kids? Don't these murderers deserve to die?"
Bryan is silent for a long moment. He has, of course, heard the question many times before. "I feel worse for the families than I do my clients. It's the hardest thing." He is silent again. "But I tell them, 'I don't care what you did, how awful it was. I'm here to get you off. I don't believe you should be killed.' "
"It's not right to kill them back?" I ask.
"It's not right to kill them back," he answers.
By now it's late, nearly 11, and on the drive back to Montgomery I close my eyes, very tired. But Bryan is wide awake, ready to go back to the office tonight to work on several briefs and to meet with Amnesty International representatives who are in town visiting his center. The schedule is grueling, and Bryan does sometimes yearn for regular hours, a wife, kids. But he finds working with his clients so absorbing that he doesn't think much about what he's missing. Besides, he figures he's still young, with plenty of time for a family later. After a while, when we are nearly back to Montgomery, I ask, "Your parents have never understood why you do this, have they? They think you could be earning gobs of money."
Bryan laughs. "They've come to understand me recently." THE NEXT WEEK, ON A BEAUTIFUL autumn day, I leave Washington and drive to Milton, Del., where Bryan grew up. I find his home, the little white ranch house on County Route 319, and his father, Howard Sr., a short, trim man with dark gray hair and black plastic glasses. He takes me to the Prospect AME Church on Railroad Avenue, past the road signs riddled with bullet holes, past Vern's Used Furniture.
It's a small, not so sturdy, white
clapboard church about the size of some living rooms I've seen. The sanctuary is adorned with bright flowers, a cloth rendering of the Last Supper and a piano and an organ, much like the ones Bryan once played here on two, three nights a week and all day on Sundays. The church, with its vaguely musty aroma, is the very image of the tiny churches that dot rural America, particularly in the South, the very image of the backwoods church that embarrassed Bryan's mother when she first moved to Milton decades ago.
It's a long way from Prospect AME to Harvard Law School, but somehow Bryan made the distance look short and easy. I am marveling at this when I notice that Bryan's father is standing before the little altar, framed by the bright flowers and the cloth rendering of the Last Supper, lost in thought. He shakes his head, looks around at the empty sanctuary and says wistfully, "Bryan used to set me on fire when he prayed out loud." And once again I am reminded of how often Bryan's behavior -- in childhood, in law school, still today -- evokes inspiration in those around him, even his own father.
Back at the house, I see that Bryan's old room is filled with storage boxes now, but that the walls are still papered with dozens of his awards from childhood: the Golden Scroll for the Promise of Great- ness, the Thespian Society Award, awards for music, sports, student council -- you name it, the guy won it. His parents' pride is not disguised, and the dark-paneled walls of the house are covered with photographs of Bryan, Howard Jr. and Christy.
"Bryan said you only recently came to understand him," I say. "What did he mean by that?"
Without hesitation, Howard jumps up from the couch and dashes to the television. He roots around in a cabinet full of videotapes and pops one in the VCR. "This was last April," he says. "Bryan spoke to the national youth conference of the AME Church." In a few moments Bryan, all grainy, comes on the screen. And for half an hour, he speaks, starting slowly and then, moved by the power of his own emotions, quickly, like rapids. He says we execute the retarded, the young and the mentally ill. He says we execute men for killing whites far more often than we do for killing blacks. He talks of the defense lawyer who was drunk and of the blacks who are so often struck from murder juries. He talks of the judge who said of a convicted man's parents, "Since the niggers are here, maybe we can go ahead with the sentencing phase."
Then Bryan says, "It's not enough to see and deal with these things from a humanistic perspective. You've got to have a spiritual commitment. So many talk that talk, but they don't walk that walk. We've got to be prepared to pay the cost of what it means to save our souls." Then he quotes the Bible -- Matthew 25:34-45: "Then the King will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me . . . Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' "
The place is bedlam. "I wouldn't exchange what I'm doing for anything," Bryan says, voice rising. "I feel the pleasure of God."
Bryan's father gets up quietly, rewinds the tape. Tears are in his eyes. "I didn't understand his faith until this talk," he says. "He never talked about himself, ever."
Sadly, Bryan's mother, Alice, is in the hospital being treated for a life-threatening illness, and his father and I go to visit. Her lean, elegant body and handsome face are the image of her son, as are her slow, deliberate mannerisms, perfect diction and clear, accentless voice. She sits in a robe in a chair next to her bed, illuminated by a single lamp. Seeming tired, she closes her eyes as she speaks. "I told him he was not going to live in the sticks all his life. Please do not be satisfied." She opens her eyes and laughs. "Sometimes I think he listened too well. He is so far away. I miss him so. Did Howard tell you we didn't understand him until April of this year when we heard him speak? He never talked about himself. Me, I've been a money-grubber all my life. But now that I've been sick, I see that Bryan is right. Really, what are we here for? We're here to help one another. That's it." After a pause, she says, "You know, a college friend of Bryan's once asked me, quite seriously, 'Could Bryan be an angel?' "
Alice and Howard Stevenson talk into the evening, and just as I'm about to leave, Howard says, "The Lord touched him." And Alice tells this story: When Bryan was 13, in a hot little Pentecostal church in Camden, Del., where she'd taken the Prospect youth choir to sing, "Bryan went off in the Spirit. He got happy. He danced." I ask what that means, and Alice and Howard chuckle at my naivete. "It is to be in a realm of complete and absolute joy," Alice says, although that day she did not feel joy. "I cried because I never wanted that to happen to Bryan. I didn't want him to be a backwoods cultist Christian. He broke out in a sweat, completely physically immersed, and the Spirit took him over. I held him, hugged him and cried." Because for all the years Alice -- proud, urbane Alice from her white-gloved Philadelphia Baptist church -- had gone to Prospect AME, she'd never been a true Pentecostal believer.
"But this was my child, my darling, my flesh. I knew there was no falseness in him. So I knew this was a real gift from God. I stopped turning my nose up at it as something only ignorant people did." And looking out the window one morning soon afterward, watching the rising sun, Alice was suddenly overwhelmed with the presence of God. Simply put, Bryan had saved his mother.
"That feeling," she says, "can't be put into words."
Perhaps not, but I remember that James Baldwin seems to have come very close in the final pages of Go Tell It on the Mountain. And rereading his words at my home late that night, I try to imagine Bryan as Baldwin's character John, try to imagine how transforming must have been Bryan's experience -- whether spiritual or psychological.
Baldwin wrote: "And something moved in John's body which was not John. He was invaded, set at naught, possessed. This power had struck John, in the head or in the heart . . . The center of the whole earth shifted, making of space a sheer void and a mockery of order, and balance, and time. Nothing remained: all was swallowed up in chaos . . . His Aunt Florence came and took him in her arms . . .
" 'You fight the good fight,' she said, 'you hear? Don't you get weary, and don't you get scared. Because I know the Lord's done laid His hands on you.'
" 'Yes,' he said, weeping, 'yes. I'm going to serve the Lord.' " I PUT DOWN THE BOOK, AND I THINK again of the 36 Righteous Men: The ancient legend, I now realize, isn't the answer to what it means to be truly good; it is only one more way of asking the question. With or without religion, maybe that's all good people can ever really do: live their lives as a question posed to others. I think of a priest I once knew. He told me that Christians would have no need to evangelize if only they lived their lives as mirrors of goodness in which others could glimpse the goodness of Christ -- and thus the goodness in themselves. And I think of Bryan: His deepest mission, I now see, is not to save the lives of convicted men, but to live in such a way that his own life is a question posed to others.
"I want to be a witness for hope and decency and commitment," Bryan had said, before I understood what he meant. "I want to show in myself the qualities I want to see in others." Bryan's own motive is to "feel the pleasure of God." Yet whether graced with the power of God, the power of a strong, decent family or the power of some buried psychological zeal, Bryan's life is like the priest's mirror: Looking into him, people see their failings and possibilities. Like the lamedvovniks, Bryan must deny this power -- not because he will disappear in a flash of God's will, but because if others can call him "special," they can excuse their failings and avoid struggling to find the goodness in themselves.
Finally, I think of Frederick Smith, Bryan's friend from Harvard Law, the man who said he was forever changed by meeting Bryan: "If religion created Bryan Stevenson," he had said, "we all need a lot more religion."
Pray it were only that easy.